Saturday, July 13, 2013

Avoid writing badly: make the sentence your unit of expression

Sentences, Part 1

What’s the difference between good writing and bad? To me, one sure sign of bad writing is bad grammar.
Grammar isn’t that hard. The first step is to understand that the sentence is your basic unit of expression.
Consider this example:
An analysis of survey results conducted by GHI concluded that different groups of consumers face different kinds of challenges, this includes unemployed and underemployed as well as low-income groups.
This example from fiction demonstrates the opposite problem:
The chattering of Will’s teeth, as loud as the cold north wind that blew down through mountains.
The problem in the first case is a comma splice: joining two separate sentences with a comma, rather than separating them with a period (or maybe a semi-colon).

The problem in the second example is an incomplete sentence. The verb is missing.

This is how a grammatically complete sentence would read:
The chattering of Will’s teeth was as loud as the cold north wind that blew down through mountains.
That’s not a particularly creative solution, but it’s correct.

Another example, with some light surgery to hide the actual source:
But back to the economy, all three projects expanded simultaneously and required capitalization, no wonder the organization’s bottom line was depleted.

The unit of expression

A word may be a unit of meaning, but a single word by itself does not usually express an idea.

Back when I was in grade school, after cleaning the sabre-tooth tigers’ litter boxes, we all learned that a sentence expressed a complete thought.
To do that, it needs two elements: a verb or predicate — action — and a subject, which is usually a noun or a pronoun.

The quick red fox jumps.
The action word, the verb, is “jumps.” “Fox,” of course, is the subject. The rest of the words describe the subject.

Sometimes, you don’t need the subject to be written out: “Duck!” The subject is “you, implied” — a concept that caused all sorts of confusion when I was in school (but was not as distressful as the hungry velociraptors in the back of the cave).

Noun and verb. Other words describe the subject or complete the action.

A wave of lust slammed into her body.
“Lust slammed” would be a grammatically complete sentence.

The subject can also be a phrase or a clause: a group of words that function together as a noun.

Resisting the temptation to crush her body against his and tear off her clothes took all his willpower.

The subject in that example did not end until after “clothes.” (“After clothes” is one of my favourite places.)

That’s all there is to it. To write clearly, write about something doing something.

Joining complete thoughts

To join two complete thoughts — sentences — you have to have the right kind of link. Usually, it’s not a period, but a word or a group of words. Instead of boring you with grammatical logic, I advise you read good writing until you develop a sense of what “sounds” right.

Here are some examples of what not to do, and corrections, again taken from real sources.

Run-on sentence

The run-on sentence happens when one complete idea follows another without any punctuation or joining phrases.
She got up and went into the bathroom and got a wet washrag and came back and laid it across her mother’s forehead.
The succession of clauses joined by “and,” while grammatically correct, is tedious. There’s also too much detail. You don’t need to describe every single action: your reader can figure it out.
She wet a rag in the bathroom and laid it across her mother’s forehead.

Comma splice

She took his hand again, “how are we going to keep them safe?” She whispered.
Again, there are more than one problem here:
She took his hand again. “How are we going to keep them safe?” she whispered.
“If we move quickly we could be off in front of the soldiers, we’ve got fast horses and money.”
“If we move quickly we could get ahead of the soldiers — we’ve got fast horses and money.”
Does grammar matter?
As long as the underlying meaning comes across, does it matter that you follow every little rule?

Yes. First, correct grammar is a sign of professionalism. Whether you’re writing fiction, advertising or technical reports, if you don’t come across as professional, no one will take your document seriously. If the audience doesn’t believe you, why bother writing?

Second, grammar ensures clarity:
For hospitals seeking increased profitability in the operating room (OR) it is essential to streamline the movement of materials from suppliers to the hands of doctors efficiently acquiring and moving supplies critical to OR procedures are measurable ways to reduce costs, increase revenue capture, optimize labour and improve process management.
What’s efficient: doctors’ hands, or moving supplies?

When the subject is medical care, I think clarity is pretty darn important.

Scott Bury
Scott Bury is an author, editor and journalist based in Ottawa, Canada. His blog, Written Words, publishes writing tips and guidance, reviews of independent books and interviews with their authors, samples of his fiction and opinions on the state of the communications industry. 

Follow him on Twitter @ScottTheWriter.

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